Monday, April 16, 2012

 

Four-Year Degrees, Two-Year Schools

The news from Michigan that Northwestern Michigan College, a two-year school, has applied for permission to offer four-year degrees got me thinking about the entire concept.

(I’m not focusing in particular on Northwestern Michigan College, since it’s armed at a level that my college simply is not.  They have a 224 foot submarine.  I’m not gonna mess with that.)

Should community colleges offer bachelor’s degrees?

My strong inclination is “no,” though I’m more than happy to support cooperative bachelor’s degree completion programs, aggressive articulation agreements, and even statewide transfer blocs.  Community colleges as the first two years of a four year degree strike me as a very reasonable solution for many people.  Community colleges as four year schools, not so much.

I understand the impulse.  Four year colleges get much more respect, and can charge correspondingly higher tuition.  The faculty would generally support the idea, as long as it came with the lower teaching loads characteristic of four-year schools.  Students routinely ask when we’ll start offering four-year degrees, since they like it here and don’t want to go elsewhere.  I get that.

But mission creep is poisonous, especially when money is tight.

If we suddenly had to cover twice as many sections with the same faculty, we’d have to either increase our adjunct ratio even more, or stuff the class sections fuller.  That’s how a lot of the four-year schools do it.  When I t.a.’ed for the 101 class in my discipline at Flagship State, the main lecture was taught in an auditorium for 300 students.  “Recitation” sections had about 25 students, but the t.a.’s were typically grad students in their mid-twenties with minimal preparation.  We learned on the job, if at all.  By contrast, the 101 classes at my cc are taught by real faculty in sections of 32 or less.  The students can actually ask questions.  

The political issues might even swamp the staffing ones.  Right now we have excellent relationships with most of the local four-year colleges, since they see us -- correctly -- as a feeder.  We transfer the higher achievers directly into their lower-enrolled upper-level sections.  The four-year schools can fill their upper-level classes even after freshman attrition; we can give students real and valid goals to shoot for; the students can get four-year degrees at a deep discount.  Wins all around.

But recast us from “feeder” to “competitor,” and suddenly things get ugly.  We have to raise prices substantially to compensate for the extra staffing, extra sections, extra facilities, and extra marketing.  The four-year colleges move from “accepting transfers” to “poaching,” with all of the ethical dilemmas that implies.  We have to reduce our freshman admissions in order to make room for the upper-level students, with directly regressive economic fallout.  

More broadly, mission creep is one of the underappreciated cost drivers in American higher education.  Second-tier schools want to be first-tier, and they know that it costs money to do that.  Colleges want to be universities, and the slightly selective want to be more selective.  Right now, community colleges offer the benefit of relative specialization, and of a clear identity.  They specialize in the first two years, and leave the rest to others.  Suddenly moving from “effective provider of the basics” to “mediocre four-year wannabe” strikes me as wrongheaded.  If anything, the right move for community colleges is towards greater specialization, not less.  

The universe of higher education has become more diverse, even as the various colleges and universities try to imitate each other.  (For-profits account for the difference.)  My free advice for community colleges is to embrace specificity.  Do those first two years better than just about anybody else.  Let the for-profits pick up the most expensive vocational programs.  Focus intensely on the liberal arts core, with a few vocational programs of obvious relevance.  (In my neck of the woods, that would include allied health and criminal justice.  In Northwest Michigan, it may include working 224 foot submarines.  Gotta protect us from rogue Canadians.)  Let the other folks carry the costs of HVAC technician training or upper-level seminars.  

Community colleges have the raw material to be the breakthrough sites for innovations in teaching writing, speaking, and math to first-year college students.  That’s a worthy and difficult mission, hard to do well but valuable when done right.  Let’s do that.  I’m content to leave the upper-level stuff to the colleges that specialize in it.  Better to do what we do, well.

Comments:
I'd think that the only reason to make a two-year school a four-year school is that there was a lack of four-year education in the area, and there was a regional decision to bootstrap from a two-year.

It doesn't seem like something that makes sense for an individual institution to decide on, unless it's getting creamed for enrollments.
 
You make it sound as if all 4-year institutions have the teaching loads/priorities/structures of flagship research universities with Ph.D. programs. The "lower teaching loads characteristic of four-year schools," to be clear, are often 4/4 loads rather than the typical 5/5 of community colleges. And it's also often the case that at such institutions there's no such thing as a 300-student lecture with TAs, as many such institutions don't actually have a full complement of graduate programs (which, I'd imagine, is where TAs in the model that you set up are supposed to come from) and so there's not a TA in site. I teach at a 4-year institution. One with an MA program, in fact. My teaching load is 4/4. I don't teach a class with more than 25 students in it. I don't have TAs. Many of my students transfer not only from CCs, but also from the state's flagship or from other higher profile institutions (and most frequently not because they flunked out of the higher profile institutions, but rather because they want to save money by living at home). But it doesn't seem you're talking about my kind of place (although it is much more common than the type of 4-year place you describe).

I'm with you on the dangers of mission creep, and I'm with you on questioning how adding BA programs might interfere with the CC mission. But when you lead with the claim that adding, say, FIVE BA programs would mean teaching loads for faculty in all departments would need to be dramatically reduced (it sounds like you're saying to a 3/3 or 2/2, but you're not clear about this), and when you imply that classes would go from 32 to 300 because moving to FIVE four-year degrees would mean increasing your student population times 10 immediately (although you're also not clear about this...)? You lose me. Because it seems not to understand that there is a VAST middle ground between CC and R1, and because it doesn't seem to understand that you could add FIVE BA programs and that they could be very small, and that it wouldn't actually functionally change the mission of a CC, at least in the short term. (Of course, this is the problem with mission creep though. Things are fine for a short while and then the next thing you know it's not a CC anymore, and yes, I agree that this would be a problem.)
 
I agree 100% on mission creep as an expense driver. I'm going to watch with interest as one of those "Universities At Somewhere" moves toward R1 status and makes all of the changes you outline (bigger classes, more costs unrelated to the classroom, more adjuncts, funding sports).

But there is also an excellent case that students shouldn't be required to take an extra year of classes to get the degree needed to be licensed as a captain on the Great Lakes. (Read the article.)

By the way, it is also mission creep that is driving the need for limited 4-year status. Most CC 4-year programs are in a few areas that large universities no longer find interesting because their mission has crept in a different direction.

Now that a doctorate in nursing is all the rage, a flagship R1 can turn its BSN program into a pre-doctorate program rather than an entry point to the careers that require the BSN. Should students be forced to go the private route for that? But you might need market pricing for the BSN at a CC, because you are correct that you need a different mix of nursing degrees on the faculty to offer that. On the other hand, you already have qualified faculty for every one of the science courses required for the BSN, so it isn't as big of a jump as offering business degree.
 
Dr. C -- I'm glad your classes are small. But even moving from a 5/5 to a 4/4 would represent a 20 percent increase in labor costs. Given that we're barely balancing the budget now, that's a deal-breaker all by itself.
 
"moving from a 5/5 to a 4/4 would represent a 20 percent increase in labor costs"

25%, I think - pernickety, but reinforcing the point!
 
Educational issues aside, part of this plan appears to include punishing the 4 year institutions in the state for the political intransigence. Republicans are mad, mad, mad at some of the state University leadership for pointing out how ceaseless budget cuts have gutted the public university system in the past decade. Plus, many legislators do not understand higher ed. They look at the growth in enrollment at cc's (driven in part by workforce redevelopment funding and in part by refugees from the rising tuition costs at public 4-yr institutions, which itself is a result of massive cuts to state funding), and then they say "well the cc's must be doing a better job than the 4-yrs, or else people wouldn't be flocking to the cc's."

Yeah, and that's going to be a short-term phenomenon because the workforce money is running out, and cc's won't be any better than the existing 4-yr institutions are at absorbing the costs of running 4-yr programs without more state funding! These folks just want to try to get something for nothing and in the short term, it might work - but not in the long term. But then, they won't be in office in the long term so who cares, right?
 
It's telling that when the legislature in my state (Florida) approved "limited" bachelors offerings at community colleges, every CC in the state dropped the word "community" in their name approximately 10 seconds after the rule went into effect. In our case, the state government thinks of CC's as doing the same job as four-year places, but a lot cheaper, so why bother funding the existing universities? Meanwhile, all the directional four year places are fighting to establish their own medical and law schools so they can move up. In my opinion, mission creep lies at the heart of the majority of our system-wide problems.
 
DD, explain to me why you would need to reduce every - or even any - faculty member's teaching load if a school were to add five BA programs. What am I missing here?
 
Also, let me reiterate that I'm not disagreeing with your larger point about mission creep. What I'm pointing out is that sloppy rhetoric and hyperbole isn't terribly persuasive.
 
Anon: I am in Florida also. And there are still 6 CC's that did not change to 4 yr schools (out of a total of 28). My CC made the change a few yrs ago. The key to keeping costs down is online learning. It's not a perfect delivery method but it's "customer driven" so I try hard to make it work. Anon #2
 
Point of fact: NW Michigan has a 224 foot surface ship built to track submarines, not a submarine. https://www.nmc.edu/maritime/about/facilities-vessels.html

Anon's comment on the local politics involved is on point as well.

The issue of mission creep gets funky here. The Maritime Academy is a long-standing institution (I have cousins who are alumni), but the Coast Guard changed the requirements for an officer's papers to include a 4-year degree, and there are no other freshwater schools offering degrees in the field anywhere, much less in Michigan. The only other solution would be to relocate the academy to another institution.

There's another proposal in the works for Alpena Community College to offer a Bachelors in Cement Technology. Again, there's no one in the state offering the degree for students to transfer into. Don't laugh, cement is a big business in Alpena.

The really interesting question is what happens after these reasonable cases get the camel's nose under the tent
 
DD@3:44 AM -
You appear to have missed the detail that the 4/4 load Dr. Crazy mentions is at a 4-year school with an MA program, not a BS-only program embedded in a college where 95% of the students are AA majors.

Rather than speculate, why not contact a Dean at one of the CCs that has added an El-Ed BA or a Nursing BS and ask how the teaching load has changed in the English and Math and Science departments? From what I hear, it hasn't changed at all.

You should also look at what majors are being offered, as we have done at my college. The easy ones to do are ones where only a single department has to offer (and get accredited) 3000 and 4000 level classes that have enough enrollment to "make" on a regular basis. The hard ones, rarely seen and sometimes existing in name only, are where several other departments have to offer a 3000 class fed only by majors in a different department.

Several of my colleagues and I regularly advise both students transferring to a BSN program as well as those in an AA-RN program, so we know that our college already offers every single one of the non-Nursing science, math,and social science courses required for a BSN. We only need to add a handful of Nursing classes that differ between the two.

There is a similar situation for Elementary Education, except we don't have a large existing set of courses and faculty in that area.
 
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